Here’s the Secret to a Great Mai Tai

It doesn’t always hold that a bartender’s favorite drink directly correlates to the bar he or she trains in, but it’s certainly a pattern in this column — perhaps, as with romances, you never forget your first love. And Colin Bryson, beverage manager at Asia de Cuba (415 Lafayette Street, 212-726-7755), provides another data point to support the trend. Bryson spent a good deal of his early bartending life training under Valentin Gonzalez at now-defunct tiki bar Painkiller, where he learned the ins and outs of the bar business and what he enjoyed the most in a well-made cocktail.

“Working at Painkiller, I got really into rum heavy early on,” he says. “I had my first mai tai at Painkiller. At first, it was the best drink I ever had. I was still learning about drinks.” With time, Bryson developed a fond appreciation for the Trader Vic version, among other mai tais, and it is one that always elicits a great memory.

“With tiki drinks, especially rum drinks, oftentimes there are five to nine ingredients,” Bryson explains. “It’s a whole different way of balancing drinks, a whole different set of specs, so many different kinds of rum. There aren’t too many whiskey drinks where there are four different kinds of whiskey.”

But while the rums make the drink interesting, Bryson considers another ingredient the secret to making the mai tai great: orgeat. “Orgeat is the greatest sweetener of all time because of the viscosity,” he says.

Orgeat starts with a fresh almond milk made by blending almonds with water; you then mix in two types of sugar and amaretto. It adds texture and flavor to the mai tai, and other drinks for which it’s an ingredient.

Now that Painkiller is no more, Bryson constantly seeks out mai tais at other bars around the city and world. “I actually had a mai tai at Experimental Cocktail Club [in London], and the spec that they’re using…was super-delicious,” he says. “I imagine they do something similar [here in New York].” He’s also a fan of the tiki drinks at The Happiest Hour.

The recipes for both the traditional Trader Vic’s mai tai and Bryson’s rendition are listed below.

Trader Vic’s Mai Tai (circa 1944)
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/8 ounce orgeat
3/8 ounce curaçao
1 1/2 ounce Jamaican rum
Float of overproof rum

Shake ingredients and serve over crushed ice in a tiki mug. Garnish with a bouquet of mint and a lime wheel.

Trader Vic’s mai tai, interpreted by Colin Bryson
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/8 ounce orgeat
3/8 ounce curaçao
3/4 ounce Plantation Jamaica Cask 2001
1/2 ounce Barbancourt 5 Star
1/4 ounce Rhum JM VSOP
Float of Smith & Cross

Shake ingredients and serve over crushed ice in a tiki mug. Garnish with a healthy bouquet of mint, lime wheel, orchid, and a dusting of confectionery sugar. (Go nuts on accoutrement!)

*Orgeat is made by blending almonds with water into a fresh almond milk and combining it with white sugar, demerara sugar, rose water, and amaretto.

*Curaçao is made by combining Dry Pierre Ferrand curaçao with demerara sugar at a ratio of 3:1.

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